School boards clash­ing with ‘re­volv­ing door’ su­per­in­ten­dents

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY AN­DREA BILLUPS

The ouster of Mi­ami-Dade Pub­lic Schools top ad­min­is­tra­tor Rudy Crew, who was named the na­tion’s top su­per­in­ten­dent just eight months ago, marks the lat­est clash be­tween a high-pro­file ur­ban ad­min­is­tra­tor and an elected school board that some ex­perts have dubbed a “re­volv­ing door” in ed­u­ca­tion.

Mr. Crew, a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized school re­former and au­thor who once led the New York City pub­lic school district, ne­go­ti­ated a $368,000 buy­out of his con­tract Sept. 11 af­ter po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing and a-more-than-$250-mil­lion bud­get short­fall po­lar­ized the coun­try’s fourth-largest school district.

Some ed­u­ca­tors said Mr. Crew’s de­par­ture was not a sur­prise. It was in­evitable, they said.

“Run­ning a large ur­ban school sys­tem has be­come al­most an im­pos­si­ble job,” said Daniel A. Domenech, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of School Ad­min­is­tra­tors (AASA), which hon­ored Mr. Crew, 58, as Na­tional Su­per­in­ten­dent of the Year in Fe­bru­ary.

Mr. Domenech, who once helmed the schools in Fair­fax County, Va., de­fended Mr. Crew’s ten­ure in Mi­ami-Dade, not­ing that he fell vic­tim to po­lit­i­cal strug­gles sim­i­lar to those that have marred the suc­cess of ur­ban pub­lic school ad­min­is­tra­tors across the coun­try.

“The bench­marks would in­di­cate that aca­dem­i­cally, he was do­ing a very good job down there. He’s a very pop­u­lar writer and speaker on the ed­u­ca­tion cir­cuit, and he has a pas­sion for kids and ex­cel­lence in schools,” said Mr. Domenech, who de­cried the in­creas­ingly po­lit­i­cal na­ture of elected school boards as an im­ped­i­ment to ad­min­is­tra­tors and stu­dent progress.

“With boards that are elected, when things are not go­ing the way they like it go, they rail against the one per­son they can rail against, and that’s the su­per­in­ten­dent,” he said, com­par­ing the role of su­per­in­ten­dent to that of the coach of a pop­u­lar home team that isn’t do­ing very well.

“You can’t get rid of all of the play­ers, so you get rid of the coach,” he said. “Un­for­tu­nately, in the long run, it does them no good to have this re­volv­ing door. They never have the longevity that you need to have in a school sys­tem for pro­grams to set in and for progress to be made over the long term.”

Ac­cord­ing to data sup­plied by Mar­ket Data Re­trieval and re­leased by the AASA, be­tween the 2005 and 2006 school years, 13,251 school boards hired 2,244 su­per­in­ten­dents. The num­ber, de­not­ing a na­tional an­nual turnover rate for su­per­in­ten­dents is near 17 per­cent, is sim­i­lar to pre­vi­ous years, which means that about 17 per­cent of dis­tricts an­nu­ally are seek­ing su­per­in­ten­dents in a given year.

Ac­cord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton­based Coun­cil of the Great City Schools, the av­er­age ten­ure for an ur­ban su­per­in­ten­dent is just 3.1 years.

Mr. Domenech noted that Mr. Crew, whose con­tract would have ex­tended un­til 2010, out­lasted that mark. Still, Mr. Crew was not on the job long enough to en­act broad, sweep­ing re­forms or see the kind of changes that stu­dents need.

“It can’t be done in 3.1 years,” Mr. Domenech adds, not­ing an in­creas­ing short­age of skilled school ad­min­is­tra­tors. “It re­ally re­quires much longer than that.”

Mike Petrilli, vice pres­i­dent for na­tional pro­grams and pol­icy at the Thomas B. Ford­ham In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, said be­ing an ur­ban su­per­in­ten­dent re­quires an ed­u­ca­tor who can nav­i­gate like a politi­cian, but of­ten that’s a com­pli­cated dance. Even the most de­ter­mined of­ten run afoul of per­son­al­ity strug­gles and lo­cal con­trol.

“Rudy Crew has a rep­u­ta­tion of break­ing china and get­ting things done,” he said. “Mi­ami is a per­fect il­lus­tra­tion of why we need to re­form the gov­er­nance of ur­ban school sys­tems.

“The best CEO in the world could not sur­vive the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment of Mi­ami,” he said. “It’s not con­ducive to get­ting re­sults, it’s about play­ing pol­i­tics.”

In many cases, Mr. Petrilli ar­gues, shift­ing from an elected board to may­oral con­trol has helped ur­ban su­per­in­ten­dents fo­cus more on mean­ing­ful re­form and less on com­mu­nity pol­i­tics.

He cites Arne Dun­can, who was named chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Chicago pub­lic schools by Mayor Richard M. Da­ley in June 2001, and Joel Klein, who was ap­pointed chan­cel­lor of the New York City Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2002, as school leaders who are mak­ing progress through longevity.

“They have the sup­port and back­ing of the mayor, and they are able to avoid some of the pol­i­tics that su­per­in­ten­dents have to play with the school board,” he said. “It’s a lot eas­ier to make one boss happy than seven or nine.”

Mr. Crew joined the Mi­ami school distr ict in 2004, and earned a salary of $350,000. He pre­vi­ously led school dis­tricts in Sacra­mento, Calif., and Ta­coma, Wash. He took over as pub­lic schools chan­cel­lor in New York City in 1995, and clashed with then-Mayor Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani over the use of school vouch­ers. New York bought out his con­tract in 1999, and he moved back to the North­west to cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tional lead­er­ship or­ga­ni­za­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton. He later worked at a foun­da­tion in San Fran­cisco be- fore be­ing hired in Mi­ami.

Al­though he ar­rived there with much fan­fare, he bat­tled with long­time district em­ploy­ees and came un­der fire for be­ing au­to­cratic and out of touch with the com­mu­nity’s needs. De­spite the in­fight­ing, his district was rec­og­nized by the Broad Foun­da­tion as one of the top five ur­ban school dis­tricts in the county. The Na­tional School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion also hon­ored Mr. Crew in 2007 with its Coun­cil of Ur­ban Boards of Ed­u­ca­tion (CUBE) Award of Ex­cel­lence.

Mr. Crew did not at­tend the school board meet­ing on his set­tle­ment, but his at­tor­ney said he was pleased with the terms.

“He loves the chil­dren, and he’s con­cerned about the progress that’s go­ing to be made on his ini­tia­tives,” lawyer H.T. Smith told the Mi­ami Her­ald this month. “But he un­der­stands that the mi­nor­ity of board mem­bers have made him in­ef­fec­tive.”

It was not clear whether Mr. Crew was ne­go­ti­at­ing fu­ture em­ploy­ment, but his at­tor­ney and oth­ers said he would have op­tions in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

“If Rudy Crew wants to con­tinue to be su­per­in­ten­dent, there will be a num­ber of dis­tricts call­ing on him,” Mr. Domenech said. “Clearly, there are not that many peo­ple in the coun­try that have the ex­per­tise and the skills and abil­ity to do the job.”

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